Monday, September 20, 2010


Boardwalk Empire No. 1: Pilot

BLOGGER'S NOTE: This recap contains spoilers, so if you haven't seen the episode yet, move along.

By Edward Copeland
The first image we see in the premiere of Boardwalk Empire is a circular iris closeup of a pocketwatch. As the picture expands, we see it belongs to a ship's captain peering through fog, trying to spot a speedboat he's expecting to meet. The ship in foggy water is somewhat reminiscent of Shutter Island, Martin Scorsese's last feature film, but this is his first try at directing an episode of a television series. No surprise: He's very good and you couldn't ask for anyone better to set the template for this new HBO series.

The rendezvous is to unload a shipment of Canadian Club whisky or "liquid gold" as one of the ship's crew calls it. We next see clearly through the soupy weather the bright lights and carnival-like atmosphere of the boardwalk from the show's title appear along the words Atlantic City 1920. We next see the whisky shipment being secured in a truck ready to make its way to parts unknown. As it passes a sign noting Hammonton, N.J. "the blueberry capital of the world," the truck has to stop for an accident: There's an overturned car with a bloody driver lying in the road. The driver still is alive, but the leader of the bootlegging crew recommends leaving him on the side of the road and moving along. Before they can, two masked men appear brandishing shotguns and the "injured man" gets up. "Do you know who this shipment belongs to?" the leader of the truck crew asks. "It's pretty fucking obvious now," responds one of the masked men before cracking the man across the skull with the backend of the shotgun. Across the screen appear the words THREE NIGHTS EARLIER.

Meet Enoch "Nucky" Thompson (Steve Buscemi), Atlantic County treasurer, Republican Party bigwig and the man you need to know to get things done in Atlantic City. Currently, he is being introduced by Mrs. McGarry (the always solid Dana Ivey), head of the local chapter of the Women's Temperance League, to speak to the group on the eve of Prohibition. He shares with them the story of the awful winter of 1888 when a poor family, burdened with an alcoholic and often absent father, struggled to survive. As the family starved, the oldest son, a lad of only 10, took the end of a broomstick and killed three wharf rats in desperation so his family could have something to eat. Finally, Nucky gets to the story's denouement: That boy was him. "Prohibition means progress," he tells the women, whose members include a young pregnant lass (Kelly Macdonald), "and hopefully soon also your right to vote." At that moment, Nucky's driver Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt) makes his way to the podium to whisper to Thompson who announces, with regret, that some urgent business has come up and he must depart. Outside, Jimmy chuckles at Nucky's tale to which Thompson replies, "Never let the truth get in the way of a good story." It's quite a pleasure to see Buscemi take command of a role such as Nucky, a man of stature and power. It's as an unusual a casting choice as James Gandolfini was thought to be when The Sopranos began when many of the networks thought David Chase needed a more conventional "leading man," but Buscemi's selection is brilliant in Boardwalk Empire, both for the series and the actor.

Once they arrive at Babette's Supper Club, they make their way upstairs where a meeting of various Republican officeholders including Nucky's brother Elias "Eli" Thompson (Shea Whigham), the county sheriff, is taking place. Nucky leads the gathered in a toast. In two hours, Prohibition will be the law of the land, thanks to Congress. "To those beautiful, ignorant bastards," Nucky says as he leads the group in raising their glasses. Though some of the GOP movers and shakers are skeptical that it will be a good thing, Nucky reassures them that much money is about to be made. "Dry though may the country be," Thompson tells them, "Atlantic City will remain as wet as a mermaid's twat." He explains how they will be able to charge so much more for drinks and those desperate for alcohol will pay because they can't get it anywhere else. "They may as well outlaw smoking," his brother adds. Among other announcements, Nucky welcomes Jimmy back into the fold following his service in the Great War, and names Paddy Ryan (Samuel Taylor) to be the new senior county clerk. As the meeting adjourns to the festivities downstairs, there's a New Year's-like countdown to the moment when Prohibition officially begins. As the moment comes, the band plays a mournful variation of "Taps" before lightening the mood as the booze flows freer and faster than before.

The next morning, Jimmy is reading the paper over breakfast with his common-law wife Angela (Aleksa Palladino) and his young son Tommy (Brady and Connor Noon). He's doubting the veracity of the story prizefighter Jack Dempsey has given as to why he didn't serve in the war and didn't dodge the draft as he was being accused. Dempsey cited the care of his ailing mother. Angela suggests that if it's in the paper, it must be true, but Jimmy gives it a dismissive look and profane response, which his young boy repeats. Angela suggests that Jimmy could have stayed at Princeton and used that as an excuse the way Dempsey did, but Jimmy says Princeton isn't some high-dollar fight. She then suggests returning to Princeton and completing his education, but Jimmy nixes the idea, saying he'd be too old when he'd finish. Besides, two years of killing limits what you are qualified to do. While Pitt has been kicking around various independent films for awhile, based on what I've seen of him so far in Boardwalk Empire, this may be the best role he's landed so far in his career. This series provides some great roles in general for those who have had good parts in movies but have failed to get that breakout.

An FBI drill instructor runs cadets through their paces while in a large auditorium in the building adjoining the field, Internal Revenue Agent Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon) is among those seated on stage as his supervisor (Peter McRobbie) swears in hundreds of new "incorruptible" agents to join the government's fight to enforce the new Prohibition law.

Margaret Schroeder, the pregnant woman from the temperance meeting, makes a trip to Nucky's office, impressed by his speech the night before. As Nucky arrives at the hotel, Jimmy informs him that their friends from New York and Chicago are arriving and the meeting is set for 8 that night. In a nearby phone booth, Agent Van Alden notes the arrival of Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg) and Lucky Luciano (Vincent Piazza) from New York and Big Jim Colisimo (Frank Crudele) and Johnny Torrio (Greg Antonacci, who may be familiar to Sopranos fans as Phil Leotardo's lieutenant Butchie) from Chicago. Unfortunately, the agent he's trying to relay the information to, Agent Sebbo (Erik Weiner) isn't the brightest bulb in the world and can't distinguish names from hats and when Van Alden points out that someone is the concierge, he doesn't recognize the term and assumes it's another ethnic name. Meanwhile, Nucky's manservant Eddie Kessler (the hilarious Anthony Laciura) shows Margaret into Nucky's office. Waiting in his lobby is a well-dressed black man (Michael Kenneth Williams) who informs Eddie to tell Nucky that he can't sit around all day.

Margaret tells Nucky that she saw him at the speech last night and wondered if there was anything he could do in the way of helping her husband Hans get a job. It's obvious that Nucky is taken by something in Margaret's way. She notes the photo of Thompson's wife, who he informs her died of consumption at the age of 28 and that they were childless. Intruding into the meeting is Nucky's loud and boisterous girlfriend Lucy (Paz de la Huerta) announcing that she's going shopping. Nucky tells Margaret that he doesn't know of any job opportunities at the moment but perhaps during tourist season. However, given that she has two children already and another on the way, he takes pity on her and gives her a fistful of cash. A grateful Margaret promises to name the child after him. "Enoch?" he says. "You couldn't possibly be so cruel." He then asks Jimmy to drive Margaret home because a woman in her condition shouldn't walk such a long distance. Something about Margaret's condition and plight definitely strikes a chord in Thompson because after the meeting, he feels compelled to get some fresh air along the boardwalk, stopping to peer in the window where nurses care for premature babies in incubators under words painted on glass WE SAVE THE LIVES OF BABIES. Margaret asks Jimmy to let her out of Nucky's Rolls-Royce a few houses down from hers, but it's not far enough away to prevent her husband Hans (Joseph Sikora) from spotting her exiting it from their porch.

Nucky's stroll leads him to the pier where the fishermen bring in the catch of the day and let the assorted fish spill over the dock. Thompson finds his way to Bill McCoy (Pearce Bunting) who informs him of an incoming shipment of Canadian Club. There will be 500 crates of 100 per. They negotiate the rate and, as seems to always be the case, Nucky always gets the better end. As he leaves the pier, Jimmy rejoins him and they head over to a funeral parlor where they meet up with Mickey Cusick (Paul Sparks), though Mickey insists that they call him Doyle now. He wants to be thought of Irish and cut off from his Polish roots. "A rose by any other name," Nucky says to Mickey's puzzlement at the Shakespeare reference. An annoyed Nucky replies, "Read a fuckin' book." After first showing Jimmy and Nucky a corpse on the slab, they accidentally stumble into a funeral, where the surprised older widow can't believe that an important man such as Mr. Thompson would attend her husband's funeral. Nucky lies and tells her what a great man he was as they move along to another room where Mickey leads them to a hidden room where workers keep busy round the clock watering down real booze, adding various ingredients to make any liquor imaginable and using potatoes to raise the alcohol content. Jimmy asks if they can do scotch and Mickey offers him a glass to try. Jimmy takes a swig and almost chokes as he spits it out and asks what was in it. Mickey laughs and says, "Formaldehyde." Jimmy lunges toward Mickey, who pulls a gun. Luckily, Nucky grabs his arm, but the gun still goes off sending a slug through the ceiling and into the funeral proceedings upstairs.

Outside, Nucky tells Jimmy he has to keep his emotions in check, though Jimmy swears he could have died from drinking that junk. "You're still breathing, ain't you?" Besides, Mickey is a vital part of his operations. Jimmy admits that's part of what is bothering him is that Paddy Ryan got that promotion and he feels he's put in his time. Nucky reminds him that Ryan's been kissing ass for a long time. Jimmy counters that he's been doing that since he was a kid, but Nucky asks where he's been for the past three years. Jimmy felt it was his duty to fight for his country. "Know who dies for their country? Nucky asks Jimmy. "Fucking rubes." Jimmy just wants an opportunity. "This is America, ain't it? Who the fuck's stopping you?" Thompson responds.

At the Schroeder household, as Margaret is serving dinner. Her husband Hans asks who she knows and what makes her so special to earn a chauffeur ride home. Margaret tells her spouse that she was feeling sickly and Mr. Thompson offered to have his driver bring her home. Hans feels her head. "You do feel warm. Feeling better now?" Margaret says she does, then Hans' mood turns and asks her explains the wad of cash hidden under the children's bed. Margaret insists that the money is for the children. Hans slaps her, calls her a whore and storms out of the house with the cash.

Nucky has his big meeting with Rothstein, Colisimo, Luciano and Torrio. It's a very pleasant conversation, with Nucky telling a joke that the Italian Colisimo doesn't quite get because of the American vernacular. They also discuss the problems of Prohibition and how the out-of-state mobsters understand that Thompson might have access to liquor they'd be interested in. Since it's shaping up to be a quite leisurely business meeting, it gets to be a bit much for the young Luciano who wants to get down to business. "You young fellas," Nucky says, "No appreciation for the art of conversation." Luciano leaps from his chair, but Rothstein soothes him and he leaves. Rothstein tells him that an important relative is having a wedding soon and unfortunately they do not have a stockpile to satisfy the occasion. Nucky tells him he has a shipment of Canadian Club coming in that he'd planned to use for himself but to get their business arrangement off on the right foot, he'll let him have the entire load for $60,000, but he'll have to have provide the crew for the pickup. The deal is set. While the bosses talk inside, Jimmy is getting acquainted outside with Torrio's driver, a young man named Al Capone (Stephen Graham). They speculate on how much money the big guys are worth. Jimmy asks if Chicago is getting into the booze business as well. He said he would and Torrio wants to, but Colisimo thinks whorehouses and the rest of their businesses are enough.

The next day, Jimmy and Angela take their son to the movies where they see a Fatty Arbuckle film where the titles say Fatty is remembering a lost love. What follows is Arbuckle burying an empty bottle and planting flowers at its grave. The theater is uproarious with laughter. As the family walks along the boardwalk, their son wants to wander into the photo shop, but Jimmy steers him away. Soon though, something else stops them: Agent Van Alden, who asks if he can speak to Jimmy. Jimmy assures Angela that everything is OK and goes off with Van Alden. Van Alden and his supervisor grill him about Nucky and compliment Jimmy on his war service and time at Princeton. Jimmy defends Nucky as "a pillar of the community." They tell him they know about Thompson's graft and electoral shenanigans, but that's not what they are interested in. They enforce the Prohibition law. They ask him if he'd be interested in working for them. He tells them that he has a bum leg, but Van Alden's boss assures him that he could take care of that. Scorsese films the entire sequence with lots of sharp and odd angles to represent his uneasiness. "It's a godly pursuit," Van Alden tells him. Jimmy asks for a cigarette.

While Nucky enjoys a particularly boisterous romp with Lucy, the pair get interrupted by Eddie, concerned by the sounds of the screams coming from within the room. He also has news of an important call Lolly Steinman (Danny Burstein), Nucky's man on the casino floor of one of his small gaming houses. It seems that Arnold Rothstein is breaking the bank to the tune of $93,000. A distressed Thompson wants to quickly put his clothes on and get over there, but Jimmy has called in sick and Lucy has locked herself in the bathroom. Eddie pitches in to try to break into the bathroom. Eventually, Nucky's able to dress and Eddie drives him to the casino where Lolly (Danny Burstein) says that he thinks Rothstein is cheating and if he were anyone else, he'd be out in the alley. Nucky approaches Rothstein, who is taking a break and dining with Luciano. Nucky tries to be diplomatic, explaining to the New York gangster that they are a small house and simply can't handle that sort of action. Rothstein understands: He'll simply subtract the $60,000 he owes for the liquor shipment and they'll only owe him $33,000. Luciano butts in and says that then he can go on playing, leading Nucky to tell Lucky to let the grownups talk. Luciano is out of his chair again, but Rothstein once again calms him. Rothstein doesn't want to gamble where he doesn't feel welcome. Nucky sighs and tells them to cash Rothstein out. As Nucky prepares to depart the floor, another voice asks if he's the one the who is familiar with his wife. Nucky turns and realizes he's staring at Margaret Schroeder's husband. Nucky asks where he got that money. Hans says it's none of his business. "That belongs to your wife," Nucky proclaims. Hans says, "So it was you" before adding that he's ahead, so he can have the cash back. An angry Nucky grabs Hans and slams his head into the gaming table several times before telling his people to throw him out.

Young Al Capone keeps himself amused watching bouts of midget boxing when he's surprised by the arrival of Jimmy Darmody. The drivers for important men trade small talk until Jimmy finally asks Al what he knows about the shipment of whisky coming in that night. Al turns to look at him and the screen stops in freeze frame and begins one of the best edited sequences I've ever scene in series television. The story returns to where the pilot episode began, as we see Jimmy, Al and their accomplice faking the car wreck, stopping and hitting who we now know are Rothstein's men and proceeding to take their guns in preparation for stealing the shipment of booze for themselves. However, this isn't the only event going on in the Jersey woods that night. Van Alden and his men are saying a prayer as they prepare themselves for battle and begin stealthily marching through the woods toward their target. While all of this is going on, Nucky is enjoying himself watching Eddie Cantor (Stephen DeRosa) perform for a sold out and entertained crowd and whose act provides the soundtrack for much of the entire sequence. Capone proves to be a very jittery sort, jumping at every creak and sound that emanates from the surrounding area, despite Jimmy's best efforts to get him to play it cool. The feds continue to move closer, through an open field and past the trees, occasionally taking pause at Van Alden's hand signals. Suddenly, a deer goes galloping across the road where the hijacking is in progress, spooking Capone who opens fire on Rothstein's men. Jimmy has no choice but to join in the killing. As the shots ring out, Van Alden's men make their move and we realize for the first time that they were nowhere near the hijacking: They were raiding Mickey's funeral parlor operation. Back on the road, four men lie dead, but a fifth escapes into the woods and Al orders Jimmy to go after him. Jimmy hunts down the man, finally finding him and letting a round loose into his belly. Relieved that it's over, Jimmy removes his mask to hear another shot and Al shouting, "Darmody! Jimmy!" He returns to the road and Al informs him that it was just a deer that sparked the whole melee. The send the accomplice on his way, Jimmy gets in the getaway car and Al drives off with the liquor. The entire sequence is shot, filmed and edited masterfully.

Elsewhere, the night was not going well for others either. As is the way with most bullies, Hans Schroeder, bruised, both figuratively and literally, by Nucky's beating took out his rage on a target he could take: His poor pregnant wife Margaret, who lay bleeding on their kitchen floor as he staggered out of their home and down the darkened street. Following his enjoyable evening watching Eddie Cantor, Nucky is enjoying a nice after-show meal when he receives a call from Eli informing of the massacre in the woods and the stolen shipment as well as the raid on Mickey's operation. When the brothers meet up, they agree that it's a heck of a coincidence that the feds raid the funeral home at the same exact time the hijacking is happening. They speculate over who knew about the shipment and whether Rothstein could have set it up himself, but Eli is the first to mention who both are thinking and don't what to say: Jimmy. Nucky tells him to find him. When Eli shows up at Jimmy's apartment though, Angela says she thought he was working because she hasn't seen him since that man pulled him off the street. As day turns into morning, the brothers meet again in Nucky's office where he's ducking phone calls, especially from Rothstein. They agree that it looks like it could be Jimmy, given his sudden disappearance and the feds picking him up off the street. Nucky still doesn't want to believe it, so he decides to go out on the Boardwalk for some fresh air.

One of the first people he encounters is Mrs. McGarry, who tells him she was on his way to see him and hands him a gift. He tries to brush her off, saying he's late for a meeting. She says that's OK because she's off to the hospital because one of the league's members, Mrs. Schroeder, suffered a miscarriage following an injury. Nucky inquires as to what type of injury, but Mrs. McGarry declines to share details, but she doesn't need to. Nucky opens the gift, a plaque with a bromide about the delirium of alcohol and tosses it into a trash can as he marches on. He pays a visit to his political mentor Commodore Louis Kaestner (Dabney Coleman) who greets him with a comment about the "shitstorm" he finds himself in. He asks why he even would do business with "those people" like Rothstein and Nucky says it was a favor for Chicago and the Commodore tosses him a book he should read by Henry Ford titled The International Jew. Nucky notices a picture of his late wife and says it's seven years ago that day since her death. The Commodore says that's when he was going to jail, but perhaps she's better off. The implication is that he was not only his mentor but his father in-law, but I may just be reading into that. As for Nucky's current plight, Kaestner says he's going to have to pick someone to take the fall for those bodies in the woods. Nucky then surprises the Commodore by telling him that he thinks Jimmy was the person responsible. "Jimmy? I didn't think he had it in him."

On his way back to the office, Jimmy steps out of the shadows to approach a furious Thompson. Did I not tell you to slow down and take it easy, Nucky asks the young man. Jimmy insists that it wasn't supposed to go down the way it did, but he's changed. "Larceny and murder? That makes you a man?" Nucky asks. I am a murderer, Jimmy says, referring to the war. I'd go over the line and take out Germans and I'd be called a hero. Jimmy is convinced he's going to hell. He can still help Nucky though. "You can't be half a gangster," he tells him. "Not anymore." Jimmy then hands Nucky a thick envelope that he says is his share. Nucky says he didn't ask for this. "You didn't have to," Jimmy says before leaving a stunned Nucky behind. Meanwhile, Capone drives the load toward Chicago. In Atlantic City, Nucky stops by a fortune teller's window that asks WHAT DOES THE FUTURE HOLD FOR YOU?

Back in Chicago, Big Jim Colisimo arrives back at his restaurant and turns on the lights and proceeds to turn on his favorite piece of music. In Atlantic City, Eli and his men pull Hans Schroeder off the street and toss him into a boat. Nucky peacefully goes to the barber. Torrio greets Al as he arrives in Chicago with the liquor. Hans gets the shit kicked out of him. As Colisimo enjoys his music, a man with a gun appears behind him and shoots him in the head. After Eli and his deputy have finished the job on Hans, they toss his body into the Atlantic. When the catch of the day spills on the dock, Hans' body lies among the fish with reports that he's been connected to the bodies in the wood. After his trip to the barber shop, Nucky purchases some flowers and visits Margaret in the hospital as the episode ends with a reverse iris shot mirroring the opening.

While I have an advantage over average viewers that I've seen the first six episodes so that I know where some things will pay off down the road, what I enjoyed most about Boardwalk Empire (and appreciate about new series in general) is when they don't make their debuts solely about exposition. Let the audience figure out who the characters are and their relationships. It shows a respect for the viewer and Boardwalk Empire does that. It's off to a damn fine start (and man is it great to look at).

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Nice post,,love to visit your blog
Yeah, I really enjoyed this first ep. and it was great that they got Scorsese to direct it, giving it his visual pizzazz. Nice to see the likes of Michael Pitt, Stephen Graham and Kelly Macdonald as regulars in this show... and, of course, the always reliable Michael Shannon. A fantastic cast and I'm certainly hooked. Very intrigued to see where it will go.
I thought this was just a fantastic pilot episode...and, keeping in the spirit of what Jim Emerson has been proposing over at his blog (that television is cinema), "Boardwalk Empire" may just be the best "film" I see this year. I'm extremely excited to see where it goes from here.

A few notes:

- Michael Shannon continues to be the best character working today. His line about doing a "God[ly] pursuit" was a favorite line of mine. Why wasn't he cast in PUBLIC ENEMIES as a T-Man?

- I thought of SHUTTER ISLAND, too, in the opening...but the iris shot made me think of THE AGE OF INNOCENCE, also. I loved seeing the flashes of the Scorsese aesthetic throughout the episode.

- I love, love, loved the tracking shots...again, making a television show feel more like a film. I especially loved the way the camera just kinds of swept over the boardwalk to give us a sense of place (and to notice the amazing set design).

- Speaking of those amazing sets: this reminded me a lot of "Deadwood" (I hope they don't cancel the show based on its costs) in how the setting is just as much a character as the interesting people that inhabit the town. I also like the way that Scorsese, like Milch did with "Deadwood", uses the logistics of the town to introduce us to all of the characters, and their connection to each other and the boardwalk.

- Finally, I agree with you that it's so amazing to see a piece of entertainment use visuals as a means of exposition. Nothing felt superfluous in the pilot episode, and I loved that Scorsese and Terence Winter decide to let the audience try and fill in the blanks, instead of using the pilot in order to lay a foundation of context through needless exposition. As beautiful as this episode of television was to look at, the two scenes that stood out the most to me where the quietest...the moments when Buscemi stares into windows (the Incubator store and the Fortune Teller)...obviously thinking deeply upon something he's done or needs to do.

Great write-up, Edward. Looking forward to next week.
Thank you for this summary/write-up with commentary!
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